Category Archives: politics

50 thoughts on turning 50: #32 Nothing but the truth (but whose truth?)

I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.

In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.

Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.

Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.

What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.

What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).

The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.

It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.

This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.

Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.



Banners, business, and God Bless America

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY

NOTE: This post can be read in its entirety at my blog at; at the end of this excerpt you can click to continue reading there. For the record, I don’t care one way or the other if the banner hangs or not. What I care about is that the truth of this story is told.

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Banners, business, and God Bless America
by Joanne Brokaw

I was a little surprised yesterday when I noticed that a story about a local cafe owner and her kerfuffle over a banner that reads “God Bless America” was trending on Facebook.

Jennifer Aquino is at odds with the Town of Penfield over a banner she hung on her Five Mile Cafe back in June. And if you believe everything you read on social media, the town was unpatriotic in its insistence that she remove the banner just as we readied to celebrate Independence Day. In fact, a Fox News story reported that Aquino asked for permission to hang the banner and was denied, so she hung it anyway.

Not true. She had permission to hang the banner. She just overstepped the parameters.

On purpose.

But let’s go back a bit and take a closer look. Why? Because I used to own a small business in a town that had seriously tight rules about signs and banners, and I suspected when I saw this story a couple of weeks ago that the back and forth between business and board was all about permits and regulations, and not about squashing patriotism.

And if there’s one thing I hate it’s when people cry about their rights being violated when, in fact, they’re just mad that they didn’t get their way.


Honor our sister suffragists by voting in today’s primary

Susan B. Anthony's grave, a popular place to visit on election day.

Susan B. Anthony’s grave, a popular place to visit on election day.

It’s primary day in New York. Honor suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who fought for the passage of the 19th amendment, and vote. Vote your conscience, vote your heart, vote your morals and beliefs. But make sure you vote.

Thank you, lady with the alligator purse.

This photo was taken at Mt. Hope Cemetery. Susan B. Anthony’s grave is located in Section C, Lot 93.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #30 – Protesting and Social Media

comedians in cars trevor noah

(Click image to go to website)

My social media news feeds have been filled lately with rants and lectures and quips and tirades on myriad hot button social and political topics.

I’m all for supporting causes we believe in, but I’m often left wondering how often we hit “share” or “like” on social media and feel like we’ve done some great service to social justice, when in reality all we’ve done is hit “share” or “like” on social media.

I’ve been trying to sort through my thoughts on this when I saw this week’s episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, and was struck by something guest comedian Trevor Noah said:

“People are now able to protest in their underwear. And that almost defies what protesting should be about. The whole point of a protest is to get up out of your bed, put your clothes on, walk out in to the cold and say, ‘I stand for this. I march for this.’ And now you really don’t have to have that conviction, ‘cuz you’re on the couch, in your underwear, you’re going, ‘You know what? I don’t like it, either.’ Punch in a few characters, and you’re ‘Yeah, yeah, I fought for the cause.’ No. You didn’t.”

For years I’ve struggled with this topic when it comes to church. We talk a lot about loving our neighbor, and we give to charities, and we support missionaries. But until we stand in the streets and publicly speak our mind, or get our hands dirty doing actual work, or sit down face to face with people on the other side of issues and actually inhale each other’s words in conversation, we really can’t say we’ve taken a stand, or fought for a cause, or had a discussion.

It’s easy to hide behind 140 characters and a photoshopped profile photo, easy to take a stand and argue back online when you don’t have to look someone in the eye, hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tension in the air, and be accountable for the words leaving your lips.

The other thing that struck me about this episode was Noah talking about apartheid in South Africa, and what it means to be black, white and colored (yes, those three are all different in South Africa), and growing up with parents who were illegally married (yes, in the 1980s), and what it means to live in a country where free speech was outlawed until the mid 1990s.

Really, watch the entire episode. It’ll give you something to think about.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #20 Put a face on the problem

Once upon a time, I had a lot of opinions about stuff. People, religion, politics, lifestyles, sexual orientation. Most of what I believed I learned in books and church.

Then I actually put faces to issues and life changed for me.

This is on my mind this week thanks to news reports about proposals to create local housing for illegal immigrant children out of former warehouses and retail space. A lot of people are questioning where the children came from and why are we taking care of them rather than sending them home.

Illegal immigration is a tough one for me. Yes, I believe in obeying the law. Yes, I believe illegal immigration is causing serious problems – like people entering the US without proper immunizations and sparking a resurgence of diseases like measles; crimes caused by illegal immigrants; the destruction of private property along the border (check out the 2006 documentary “Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration“); the crushing burden on our educational and health care systems.

But there are these other nuances to the issue that, unless you really look for them, would leave you with the belief that the problem can be solved with the wave of a wand.

Like what to do with illegal immigrant children.

A few years ago, I watched the 2009 documentary “Which Way Home“. It completely changed the way I view illegal immigration. The number of children trekking from South America to the United States is staggering. More than 100,000 children were taken into custody every year, on their way to a better life, in search of their parents, or escaping abuse and poverty. And that’s just the number we know about; who really knows how many children die or are lured in the drug and sex trade along the way.

It caused me to think more about the reality of the situation – could I put a child on a bus back to Mexico if I knew they were going back to forced prostitution, for example? What do we do with otherwise law abiding illegal immigrants who’ve been here for years and are ingrained positively in their communities? I ended up with no answers but a lot more insight into an issue that really doesn’t have a blanket solution and can’t be addressed with bumper sticker politics.

The broader lesson? If you’ve got a strong opinion on an issue, take time to put a face to it. Against gay marriage? Befriend a gay couple. Anti abortion or pro life? take someone of the opposite opinion to lunch – once a week for a year. Pro gun? Befriend someone who has lost a child in a gun accident. Anti gun? Take a class in gun safety and learn how to fire a pistol.

I don’t have any answers to the problems or political issues. But I do know that you can’t really have a legitimate opinion on something until you’ve honestly faced the other side of the issue. And the best way to do that is to listen.

I think I’ve developed more compassion and a broader world view, as well as more desire to actually consider an issue rather than just blast an opinion on social media and move on with my day.  That doesn’t mean you can’t take a stand on an issue or argue for reform or believe with every fiber of your being that your side is right. It does mean that you move forward with more grace and humility in all areas of your life.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.


What Would Susan B. Say: “The Bachelor”


“I would not object to marriage if it were not that women throw away every plan and purpose of their own life, to conform to the plans and purposes of the man’s life. I wonder if it is woman’s real, true nature always to abnegate self.”

– Susan B. Anthony, letter, 1888 (as quoted in “Failure is Impossible”, by Lynn Sherr)

I’m embarrassed to admit it but I’ve been watching this season of “The Bachelor”. Not because I’m enjoying the show, but because it’s like a massive train wreck that I can’t tear my eyes away from.

Am I the only one who sees this show for what it is: a dating game that sets women’s rights back a hundred years?

If you’re not familiar with the premise of the show, here’s a recap: Handsome Guy is presented with a group of about two dozen women, all who are vying to become Mrs. Handsome Guy. Handsome Guy whittles the group down by wooing the ladies with outings to exotic locales, fancy dinners and romance, and generally trying to get them all to fall in love with him. Once he’s done that, he picks the one he wants and offers her a proposal of marrige. The women, on the other hand, have convinced themselves the day they meet Handsome Guy that they’re desperately in love with him; they then befriend and betray each other, all with the goal of sticking around to the end and hopefully get the coveted marriage proposal.

It looks very much like emotional prostitution. Continue reading

Tracing my family tree: my ignorance of world history and how it affects my family tree

In the 1930 census, my great grandfather’s family said they were from Northern Ireland, my great grandmother’s family from Irish Free State. That I don’t even understand the difference makes me realize how truly ignorant I am.

One of the things that has been really driven home to me as I research my family tree is just how ignorant I am – about my ancestors, about world politics, about U.S. history.

Take today’s new discovery: I’ve been curious about why, in some census records, my family identifies themselves as from “Ireland,” sometimes from “N. Ireland,” and sometimes from “Irish Free State.”

To get some clarity about why that might be, I wrote to the Association of Professional Genelogists in Ireland. I got a quick response from Nicola Morris, who explained that the term “Irish Free State” was only used after 1922, when the Irish Free State was established following the War of Independence. It follows the ratification of a controversial treaty of 1922. Morris explains further:

“This term referred to the 26 counties that today form the Republic of Ireland.  It was not uncommon to find families in the US using the term Free State when referring to the origins of their parents or grandparents. It would have distinguished their place of origin as being from the 26 counties rather than ‘Northern Ireland’   Also, if any family had a republican leaning, it would perhaps have been important for them to acknowledge the steps that Ireland had taken to independence prior to 1922.  The Irish republican movement raised a great deal of money for the support of the state in the US, so the details of the struggle were well publicised in Irish circles in the US.”

Going back through census data, I learned that before the 1930 census, all of my Irish ancestors simply identified themselves as being from Ireland.

In the 1930 census, however, they got more specific. The Larkins and Maloneys now considered themselves from Irish Free State, while the Sheerins and McDade/McDevitts (that’s another mystery) noted they were from N. Ireland.

From what little I understand so far, discussion around the dinner table might have taken a bit of an interesting turn, seeing as how my great grandather James Sheerin’s parents had Northern Irish ties while my great grandmother Mary Ellen Maloney’s parents came from Irish Free State.

I always wondered how my Irish and Italian grandparents connected, but now I’m curious about how politics in Ireland might have affected life here in the U.S. for my family.

I think we forget that when our ancestors came to the U.S. they didn’t necessarily break all ties from home. I have no idea if my family was politically active – my guess would be not, but then again you don’t have to be involved in politics to have an opinion and voice it. But either way, that they identified themselves as either one side or the other does suggest they were still very connected to what was going on back in Ireland.

Another day, another mystery … and another topic to research.